The African Grey Parrot: Proper Diet and Feeding
African Grey Parrots are very food-focused. Diet is probably the number one determinant of both health and behavior. So, it is easier to begin with good habits!
What we mean by that is that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you begin with a young African Grey, and you are careful about diet and nutrition from the start, then you will reap the rewards of a healthy and happy parrot! If bad habits take hold, they are very hard to overcome.
Just like people, parrots are resistant to change, so once bad habits or poor nutrition sneak into the day to day, correction is difficult, but not impossible! Not surprisingly, a good, balanced diet for a bird is very similar to a good, balanced diet for a human. In fact, many people who bring parrots into their lives notice that their diet improves immensely due to their effort to take good care of their flying friend.
We say good nutrition and good eating habits, because they are two separate things. You can provide all the healthy nutrition in the world, but if the food doesn't actually make it into your parrot, then that's a poor eating habit, in spite of the excellent nutrition being supplied. Variety is desirable, but it is better to find a handful of healthy items your African Grey enjoys, and feed them often, as opposed to trying out every new healthy item and having that go over like a lead balloon. Bear in mind too, that picky eating can sometimes become a game to your parrot. Their way of saying, "You're not the boss of me!"
We've said many times how much African Grey Parrots are like people. It really can't be said enough. Just like people, these birds won't necessarily eat a healthy diet. If they are bored, or stressed they can eat recreationally, and develop bad habits from there. A young African Grey will often pick through the veggies in their bowl, find the ones they like, and chew them over and over again, skipping the items they don't like. This makes it pretty easy to get an idea of the items that were a hit.
You'd think this would be the easy part, but you should be as judicious about the pellets you choose to feed, as you are about the fresh items. Of course, avoid preservatives and artificial colors or flavors. When you weigh a pound or less, the cumulative effect of non-natural ingredients add up quickly. These non-natural ingredients have also been linked to feather plucking. Pellets should make up 1/3 to 1/2 of the parrot's diet. Because it's difficult to pick out the stuff they don't like in pellets, they're good for filling in the gaps in vitamins and minerals that may be left by the fresh items you choose to feed.
There are a number of specialty online sites where you can purchase organic food or treats made especially for you and your bird. These treats are, by all accounts, delicious and you can eat them with your bird. One such location is Preferred Bird Treats. The founder of this site has been in Bonka Bird Toys on several occasions. He is a chef, and he offers pre-made treats, but can also incorporate any ingredients you desire into specially prepared treats just for you and your parrot.
When choosing pellets, check the ingredient list. There should be grains, some seed, alfalfa, kelp (all organic) and the list could contain many other natural ingredients. If there is a long list of chemicals in the ingredient list, give it a pass. This should be something you're willing to eat. In fact, you should be willing to try just about anything you would feed to your bird. Pretty Bird brand produces a pellet exclusively for African Greys, but read the label before you decide to purchase it. Top's Organic Parrot Food, by contrast has a very impressive list of ingredients. Bear in mind that corn is not a vegetable, it is a grain. It is high in calories and sugars, and doesn't have much in nutritional value.
With all this talk of "organic this", and "fresh that" you may be thinking, "I can't have a parrot, I'll go broke!" Fear not! That's where "Chop" comes in. When you search online for information about proper bird feeding, you will find that opinions abound. But the good news is, bird lovers are so caring when it comes to birds, that they will tell you anything and everything they've learned to help you on your journey. It's pretty awesome. So, Chop is a way that you can feed your parrot good, healthy, organic food without breaking the bank and without having to spend all your time in the supermarket.
Chop is a mixture of vegetables, some seeds and/or nuts, grain, pasta, and just about any other fresh ingredient you can think of. It is combined and chopped using a food processor. A large batch can be made, then divided into freezer bags and frozen. Depending on the size of the batch and the number of birds being fed, this can last anywhere from a week to several months. There are a number of recipes available online, and you can mix and match to your parrot's heart's (or stomach's) delight. A great source of information can be found at parrotnation.com
Another 1/3 to 1/2 of your African Grey Parrot's diet should come from vegetables, grains, some seeds (both sprouted and not), and legumes, You can put nearly any vegetable into your parrot's meal, whether you do small daily batches of food, or make a large batch of Chop. Some of the vegetables you may want to use are sweet potatoes, carrots, yellow squash, collard or dandelion greens, different types of Kale, broccoli. These vegetables are all good sources of calcium, as are peas, green beans, leaf lettuce (not head lettuce), lima beans, garbanzo beans, and navy beans. This is just a small list, and you should experiment with different options to see what your parrot likes.
Fruits are also healthy, but should be treated somewhat like a dessert. As a rule, they have a lot of natural sugar, and shouldn't be overindulged. You can offer fruits such as papaya, mango, cantaloupe, pomegranate, apples, and bananas, just to name a few.
There are also some foods that you should avoid:
- Avocado: Can cause heart damage, respiratory difficulty, weakness and even sudden death. Not all avocado are the same, but because it is difficult to know which is which, which may be harmful and which may not, it is best just to skip the avocado.
- Caffeine: Even one or two sips can be toxic. Increases heart rate, may induce arrhythmia and could cause cardiac arrest.
- Chocolate: Can cause digestion issues, increased heart rate, tremors, and seizures and can cause death.
- Salt: Even a small amount can upset electrolyte and fluid balance. This can lead to excessive thirst, dehydration, kidney failure, and death.
- Fat: In the wild, birds eat lots of seeds and nuts, which are high in fats, but wild birds utilize their high metabolism in order to stay alive. Companion birds don't have those needs, so a single unsalted almond or walnut per day as a treat for an African Grey is probably plenty. Avoid giving fatty table foods such as meats, dairy products and so on.
- Fruit Pits and Apple Seeds: The fruits are safe, as long as the seeds or pits are removed. For seeds, beware of apples and pears, for pits, watch out for cherries, apricots, peaches, nectarines, and plums. These items can contain a cardiac-toxic cyanide compound. As long as the seeds and pits are removed, all of these fruits are safe. The seeds from other produce like grapes, citrus fruits, squash, pumpkins, tomatoes, melons, mango, pomegranate, and berries are all safe for birds to consume.
- Onions and Garlic: Onions contain sulfur compounds that can irritate the mouth, esophagus, or crop, and can cause red blood cells to rupture, causing anemia. Garlic contains allicin, which can also cause anemia and weakness in birds. If you feel the need to spice things up, use hot peppers instead of onions or garlic.
- Xylitol: Found in sugar-free chewing gum, cough drops, and other diet foods. The effects of this ingredient are known in dogs and other animals, and since birds have a much faster metabolism than those animals, it is best not to expose your parrot to this stuff. Be safe, rather than sorry.
- Dried Beans: That is to say, uncooked dried beans. Cooked beans are excellent for birds, but dried beans contain a poison called hemagglutinin which is very toxic. Keep dried beans out of reach of bird-children.
- Mushrooms: Some caps and stems of mushrooms have been known to cause liver failure in some animals. Avoid raw or cooked mushrooms.
- Alcohol: Of course you wouldn't purposely give your parrot alcohol, but be sure that they can't accidentally steal a swig as well. Alcohol is a depressant, and will depress organ systems, particularly the heart and lungs.
Changing a Problematic Diet
There are a number of ways that an African Grey Parrot may wind up with a problematic diet. Some birds love seed so much that it's the only thing they recognize as food. Others have had the same diet of a few items throughout their life and aren't willing to try new things, and still others have trained their human companions as to their likes, and throw a fit until they get what they want.
For parrots in the first category, you can't starve them into eating something that they don't consider to be food. One option you might try is sprouting their seed and feeding the sprouts to them. You can also try putting their seed into other foods. Try cooking them into eggs along with some minced vegetables in an effort to convince them to try new things. There are also cornbread recipes available online specifically for birds that you could add their seed into. This may help to tempt them into trying new items. Once you get them to try new sources of food, gradually reduce the amount of seed, and increase the other ingredients.
Another good way to encourage your African Grey to try new things is to eat the things you want them to try in front of them. You can treat this like the Model/Rival method of training famously used by Dr. Irene Pepperberg with her African Grey Parrots Alex, Griffin, and Athena. In this case, you would be both the model, and the rival. By eating in front of your parrot, and letting them know how delicious the food is, you will pique their interest and they will then at least want to give this new, wonderful food a try. Make this food as appealing as you possibly can so that when they try it, they're sure to like it.
Your parrot should be eating their largest meal in the morning, with a smaller meal in the evening. The larger meal is probably the best one to introduce new things in, with the smaller evening meal consisting of pellets and possibly some shared food with the flock, aka you and the rest of your family. Another way to encourage dietary changes is to replace one regular food item with a new offering for one of the daily meals, but only do so every other day. This way you can be sure they are eating well for three out of every four meals. If you leave for work each day, it's a good idea to do this before leaving, so that if there is a temper tantrum, you don't have to be around to hear it!
Remember, just because your parrot looks good, doesn't mean he or she feels good. It is natural for birds and all other wild creatures to hide the fact they they aren't feeling 100%. They don't want to appear weak to potential predators. For this reason, you should weigh your parrot often, at least once per day, while attempting to make dietary changes. Changes like this should only be undertaken if your parrot is healthy to begin with, so it may be a good idea to take a trip to your avian vet prior to beginning this type of change. Never assume your parrot will give in and eat if they get hungry enough no matter what food you offer, and know that dietary changes may take up to a year to properly take effect.